Beatles, Beatniks, and Beans: London and Coffee in the '50s and '60s


Once upon the 1950s and '60s, London was full of espresso bars like this. [Photograph: the justified sinner on Flickr]

Sure, the English might love their tea, but did you know they've long been coffee fanatics, too? In reality, London was one of the original coffee-house-hubs of the world: The first cafe there kicked things off in 1652, and by 1675 more than 3,000 bean counters had popped up within city limits.

Called "penny universities," cafes throughout Britain became informal intellectual think-tanks, where artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians would gather and linger over inexpensive, steaming cups of coffee to exchange ideas, theories, and dreams. Business was conducted there, too: The insurance brokerage Lloyd's of London started life as Lloyd's Coffee House, quickly changing face when the majority of the coffee talk within turned financial, as merchants would meet at the cafe to discuss matters of the market.

But according to this charming video time capsule of sorts found on YouTube, things didn't get really steamy in London's coffee scene until the espresso machine rolled into the Square Mile in the 1950s. (Not to be confused with Square Mile, which wouldn't be there today if none of this had happened.)

Turns out London isn't all tea-with-your-pinky-out after all. [Video courtesy of owanone on YouTube]

As you'll see, Brits took to the stuff pretty quickly and pretty quirkily. I can't tell you how desperately I want to hang out at the Macabre Coffee House featured in this gem of a video, or to sit and sip among the characters at The French in SoHo: A kind of coffee speakeasy hidden behind a newsstand. I mean, wouldn't you?